Aug 30, 2017

Recent articles

Recap: Special Legislative Session 2023

In the aftermath of the 2023 November election and the failure of Proposition HH, Colorado Governor Jared Polis called a special session of the Colorado General Assembly, held from November 17 to November 20.  Over the course of a fast-paced and grueling weekend of...

Systemic failure in Colorado’s PHE Unwind

During this post-COVID year of Medicaid renewals, known as the Public Health Emergency (PHE) Unwind, Colorado is terminating members at rates that are among the highest in the country, many for procedural reasons.

The Social Determinants of Education: Reflections of a Fourth-Year Teacher, Part 2

Editor’s note: With school going back in session, this is the second in a three-part series about challenges in low-income schools by Renée Swick-Ziller, an English teacher in northeast Denver. Swick-Ziller is a native of Pueblo and a proud alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado.

During the spring of my first year teaching middle school in neighborhood in northeastern Denver, our staff was required to canvas for enrollment. Wanting to represent the neighborhood we served, we knocked on doors to tell residents why our school would be a great choice. We talked about our unique traditions and the school’s achievements towards closing academic gaps with families of incoming sixth graders.

Like most of my colleagues, I did not live in the neighborhood I taught. At the age of 24, knocking on doors in a neighborhood not my own was uncomfortable, but also enlightening. I saw multiple families living in a single home, crowded fast food restaurants without a grocery store in sight, and at times I read from my Spanish script through closed screen doors hoping that I communicated clearly and warmly. I began to see that although we as educators work to improve our curriculum in hopes of closing gaps between students of poverty and privilege, that gap continues to be impacted by social determinants outside of the classroom.

That same year in Denver, I waited with students for buses to arrive during dismissal. I chatted with a 7th grader who had recently been caught stealing snacks from a classroom, was failing all of his classes, and could not stay awake during class. Teachers were racking their brains trying to apply interventions that were more effective. That afternoon he shared with me that he had recently been sleeping on a friend-of-an-aunt’s couch and food was scarce. His family was doubling-up with another. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 50 children do not have a regular place to live. These situations include doubled-up housing, shelters, and hotels. Research shows that half of children who are homeless are held back a grade. Additionally, 12.7 percent of U.S. households are also food insecure. This means that at some point during the year, families struggle to provide enough food for every member. These students are impacted by fatigue, and have problems with concentration and absenteeism. In my conversation by the school bus that day, I wondered if what would improve the grades of this student was not better lessons, but a stable house and food in the fridge.

During my most recent year teaching high school English in southwest Denver, a freshman student was noticeably struggling. He had little to no close friendships, was combatant with adults and had a failing GPA. My first reaction was that he needed more academic support. His grades seemed to reflect a learning gap, but something did not add-up. I investigated his reading scores. To my surprise, he was reading two levels above grade-level expectations. There was no apparent learning gap. His grades did not reflect his abilities. I pulled his reports and sat with him to problem solve. Initially, he did not respond well to my efforts. He shrugged his shoulders apathetically and avoided eye contact. Over the coming weeks he lingered in my class a little longer every day and talked about his family.

They were undocumented and struggling to pay immigration lawyers. He was bitter with fear of his parents’ potential deportation. School felt unimportant. Migrant students in Colorado met 9th grade academic reading expectations 27.1 percent lower than their peers in 2016. While these students face many barriers in school, one of those is stress. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, immigration arrests rose 38 percent in comparison to the year prior increasing fear in our schools. Nervous families attended parent-teacher conferences and “Know Your Rights” meetings all in the same classroom. Much work is yet to be done in schools regarding cultural competency and English language development, but academic gaps are not always due to the quality of education. Sometimes, they are due to a lack of hope.

Our schools work tirelessly to provide the best education for every student. Teachers share food from home, knock on doors, refine lessojns, and call families to check-in. We do this because we know that students need more than a great reading class to be successful in life.

The efforts of educators is not enough. It is housing instability, food insecurity, and pathways to citizenship that influence the academic achievement gap between students of poverty and of privilege. All students deserve a fair shot at a stable and productive life, but that gap has yet to be closed.

-By Renée Swick-Ziller

Recent articles

Recap: Special Legislative Session 2023

In the aftermath of the 2023 November election and the failure of Proposition HH, Colorado Governor Jared Polis called a special session of the Colorado General Assembly, held from November 17 to November 20.  Over the course of a fast-paced and grueling weekend of...

Systemic failure in Colorado’s PHE Unwind

During this post-COVID year of Medicaid renewals, known as the Public Health Emergency (PHE) Unwind, Colorado is terminating members at rates that are among the highest in the country, many for procedural reasons.


To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.


Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.


Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.


Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.